Today marks the anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. 123 years ago New Zealand became the world’s first self-governing country to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. (It is worth noting, however, that although New Zealand women were the first to be granted the vote, women in the Cook Islands were the first to make it to the voting booth!)
To mark the occasion we have placed Frances Parker’s suffragette medal on display on the Promenade on Level 4 (until 11 December 2016). Te Papa purchased the medal at auction in Scotland in February amidst much fanfare and media interest. The medal itself is surprising small in scale but carries a big story – that of the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain, and the role that New Zealanders played in supporting that fight.
Hunger Strike medals were first awarded by the Women’s Social and Political Union in August 1909. They were manufactured by Toye & Co, a company founded in 1685 specialising in crafting civil and military regalia. The medals cost a £1 each, that is just over £100 today – quite an investment by the WSPU. It features a ribbon and enamelled bar in the suffrage colours of purple, white and green. The colour scheme was devised by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence who explained her choice in the WSPU’s newspaper, Votes for Women in 1908:
‘Purple… stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity… white stands for purity in private and public life… green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring’.
In 1914 Frances Parker wrote an article for Votes for Women under her alias Janet Parker. She wrote it while awaiting trial in Perth Prison for attempting to blow up Robbie Burns’ birth cottage in Alloway. The attempt was part of the WSPU’s attention-grabbing campaign of attacking well known monuments. Her horrifying article demonstrates that there was little dignity, purity or hope awaiting suffragettes in prison, especially if they fell into the hands of a certain Dr Watson.
Dr Watson’s use of rectal feeding sparked a national controversy, and the matter was raised in the House of Commons. Before the issue could be tackled, however, Britain was at war and all suffragette lawbreakers were granted amnesty. Frances Parker, like many of her fellow-suffragettes, channelled her energy into the war effort.
A stitch in time at Holloway Prison
While Frances Parker’s 1914 imprisonment made international headlines, she had infact already been imprisoned several times for carrying out the WSPU’s catch-cry of ‘Deeds Not Words’. She served six weeks in 1908 for obstruction following a demonstration, and in 1912 spent four months in Holloway Prison after taking part in a window-smashing campaign, when at 5.45pm on a Friday in March:
‘Suddenly women who had a moment before appeared to be on peaceful shopping expeditions produced from bags or muffs, hammers, stones and sticks, and began an attack upon the nearest windows.’ Votes for Women, 8 March 1912
Over 200 women were arrested including Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the WSPU, and Frances. At her trial, Frances tellingly observed:
‘If I had thrown a stone as a striker, or even as a man who is intoxicated, I suppose I should have received a very light sentence; for I have noticed that men in Swansea, when they were held up for rioting, got a fortnight’s imprisonment, & the ringleader of them got only six weeks imprisonment. Of course, I admit that the whole difference is the difference of motive, but I think the long sentences in our case prove that the motive is recognised, & I contend that if you recognise the motive you should also recognise the provocation’.
While in Holloway Prison a group of suffragettes created this signature handkerchief. Frances’ signature can be found at the bottom of the list on the left hand side, stitched in deep suffragette purple.
Most of the handkerchief’s signatories participated in the March window-smashing campaign. Like Robbie Burns’ birthplace, the handkerchief was almost consigned to the flames. It had been kept by Mary Hilliard, a nurse whose signature is on the bottom right hand corner, until 1942 when she donated it to the British College of Nurses. The following was recorded in the British Journal of Nursing:
‘Miss Mary Hilliard, a gentle, very valiant suffragette, has bestowed as a gift to the College the fine linen handkerchief, signed by and embroidered by all the gallant women who suffered imprisonment for conscience sake, in support of the enfranchisement of women in Holloway prison in March 1912. It displays 67 signatures embroidered in various colours, and all that remains is to offer a warm vote of thanks to Miss Mary Hilliard, R.B.N.A., and to await the time when this historic gift can be suitably framed and placed in the History Section of the British College of Nurses, where its unique value will be appreciated.’
On the college’s closure in 1956 the collection was dispersed and somehow the handkerchief ended up in a West Hoathly jumble sale in the late 1960s. Having failed to attract a buyer, the handkerchief was destined for the furnace until Dora Arnold, the then custodian of the Priest House, spotted it – she recognised its historical significance – for as art historian Rozaria Parker has written ‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ – and saved it. The handkerchief remains in the collection of The Priest House, and is currently the subject of practice-based doctorate by Denise Jones, a textile practitioner studying at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, Surrey. She writes:
‘I am particularly interested in the idea that suffragettes embroidered in prison after experiencing real or imagined threats to the body. I am fascinated to know why they would bother to embroider and what the process of putting needle and thread through cloth might reveal about the body being constrained and in danger.’
Denise has alerted us to another cloth that features Frances’ signature. You can read more about her research project on Selvedge magazine’s blog. I am looking forward to seeing the results of Denise’s study and to discovering more traces of Frances Parker’s life and work. In the meantime, ‘Happy Suffrage Day’, and remember to exercise your right to vote in the next few weeks in the local body elections.